The Old Grey Wizard
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The Kindness of Strangers: 4. The Means to Persuade
The Means to Persuade
The Orcs began felling trees within smelling distance of the ravens' roosting place. Coräc and his lieutenants were kept busy for days making certain that every member of the clan was found and instructed on the location of the new, more protected site. It was a good thing that nestling season was over. He would have been hard pressed to convince the women-folk to abandon this season's young ones, even if it meant endangering the entire clan. As it was, the younglings were still demanding constant attention, although at least they could all fly well enough now.
The late July weather remained uncomfortably hot. It had not rained in weeks, though the air was heavy with the threat of it. Every afternoon, dark billowing clouds gathered to the southwest, but nothing came of them save flashes of lightning and ominous thunder. Everything and everyone seemed irritable and overwrought this summer, which meant more fights between men, and additional pickings for the ravens.
Six days after his last visit to the Tower, Coräc finally had an afternoon with nothing to do but soar. The day was still, and heavy with smoke that billowed up from the fractured, furrowed valley. The once lovely Vale of Isen was now altogether ugly. The very air had been tainted in recent years.
The Raven Lord had not had time to give a moment's thought to the greybeard on the top of the Tower, but as he circled above the valley he wondered whether the man would still be there. Had he finally given in to whatever it was the white-robed man had demanded of him? The raven's eyesight wasn't quite as keen as an Eagle's, but as he spiraled downward toward his favorite perch, he saw what appeared to be a pile of grey rags on the high platform.
As Coräc came closer, he noted that the man was sitting, his back to the southwest pillar in the only patch of afternoon shade on the platform. His elbows rested on his upturned knees, and he cradled his head in his hands. At least he had the sense to be wearing his hat this time. The raven decided at the last minute to alter his trajectory. He fluttered between the pillars and headed for the surface of the roof itself. Shimmering waves of heat rose from the black stone.
At the faint sound of wings whirring and the bird's claws clicking on the floor, the man raised his head. Coräc cocked his head to the side and stared. The man had changed again. His skin had darkened to a deep ruddy shade. His lips had cracked, and his eyes were red and puffy. The raven wasn't sure if he was the best judge of such things, but he thought the man appeared thinner.
"Good day, Master Raven," the old man said. His voice was hoarse.
Coräc edged a little closer. "You look terrible, Grey One," he croaked.
The man laughed roughly. "Thank you for that honest assessment, friend. As it happens, I do not feel particularly well at the moment."
"What's wrong with you?" The raven thought he could guess, but he wondered if the man would admit it.
"Wrong?" He chuckled bitterly. "Nothing that a bit of water and a morsel of food wouldn't cure...and freedom would restore me to health even faster."
Coräc nodded. He'd been right. "How long can you last without water or food, old man?"
He grunted. "I do not know. I've never had opportunity to find out, until now."
The raven shook his wings and stepped closer. "Perhaps the White Beard has forgotten you are up here, and thus has neglected to have nourishment brought."
The man removed his hat and wiped his sleeve across his sweat-beaded brow. The raven noted a raw, blistered swath of skin on his right hand. He wondered how in Arda the old human had burned himself all the way up here on this barren platform.
"He has not forgotten. He visited, but he brought nothing with him but his forked tongue…and his staff."
"So," the bird said, as he bobbed slowly in a circle, leaving six feet between him and the human. "The Cold White One is trying to starve you to death."
The man frowned. "I doubt he intends to go that far. I believe he would call this an attempt to persuade me."
Humans were reasonably clever in some respects, but oddly dull in others, the bird thought. Ravens had always known that the White-Robed Wizard was evil. You could smell it. Coräc hopped forward until he was just a yard from where the man sat. "I deem you did not anticipate these unfortunate events, Grey One. Did you not realize that the White One was your enemy?"
"He was not my enemy that I knew of, until the evening I arrived!" the greybeard said hotly. "But then, I believed only what my eyes and ears told me," he muttered, "and ignored what my heart was trying to say. I have been a fool—even as he has called me."
A bright green beetle scurried across the floor right at Coräc's feet. Without the slightest hesitation, he snatched it up with his beak and swallowed it whole. The bird looked up, and it crossed his mind that it may have been impolite to eat in front of a hungry man. But then again, one never knew when the next meal would come, and only an idiot passed up food that walked right in front of you.
"Why don't you do as he asks? Perhaps then he will feed you."
Instead of answering, the man rose stiffly and paced to the edge of the platform. Coräc twitched backward and flapped his wings, and in a moment he was aloft. The raven landed on the top of the southeast spire.
The old man stared down gloomily to the steaming, smoking valley below. All manner of furnaces and smithies fumed and belched, adding to the stultifying heat. On one side, ranks of Orcs were apparently engaged in a training maneuver that involved racing toward one another and smashing their armored heads together. On the other, packs of Wargs ran an exercise course of hurdles and obstacles. Faint yowls, deep-throated curses and the clang of metal on metal wafted up through the torrid air.
The bird noted with detached interest that the man rubbed the base of the third finger of his right hand between the thumb and forefinger of his left, avoiding the swath of burned skin. Perhaps his hand ached. Coräc waited for him to speak.
"I cannot do what he asks," he said at last.
"Cannot...or will not?" the raven croaked.
"An astute question, friend." The man squinted up at him. "Will not. Regardless of the consequences."
The bird regarded him silently for a moment. Then he pushed off from the pillar and fluttered to the floor of the platform again. He strutted up to the gleaming surface of the pillar and pecked, listening for a hollow sound. "No luck with the doors, I see."
The man snorted. "Thank you once again for pointing out my deficiencies, Master Raven. No luck indeed. The White One has outmaneuvered me, and his power is very great. If he wishes to keep his doors shut, they shall remain shut. If he wants me caught here, in his web, then this is where I shall be." He breathed in and out slowly and turned to face east and south. "White has now allied itself with Black." His voice dropped. "And Black is more powerful still."
Coräc shivered despite the heat. He knew well enough what the man meant. Even among ravens, who ate the dead, there were tales of grim times of great fear and endless darkness. No bird, save for those corrupted by evil, wished those times to return.
The Raven Lord had never had any use for living humans in the past. Indeed, he carefully avoided them, for he had never met a man who expressed anything but fear and hatred toward ravens. But this human seemed different. Seeing the man's predicament and being incapable of resolving it was disturbing. Yet he had more than enough work to do for his own people, and he knew of nothing that he could do to help the old greybeard. Nothing substantial, that is. But maybe a bit of encouragement would suffice. He unfolded his wings and sprang upward.
"Rain comes soon," he said as he wheeled away.
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